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Seattle in the '70s, Part 2

The NHRA Northwest Nationals take center stage on the NHRA Mello Yello tour in early August. Its venue, Pacific Raceways, has been a hotbed of nitro racing since the 1970s, Here's a look back at some great photos and memories from that era.
30 Jun 2017
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Seattle

Well, we made it through the "Eastern Swing," four back-to-back-to-back-to-back weekends of grueling racing and traveling in equally grueling weather. After the upcoming Chicago event, its right back into another stretch, the fabled Western Swing through Colorado, California, and Washington state. Earlier this year I published the first of what will be three columns written for you by longtime Northwest drag racing shooter Herman Marchetti showcasing action from Seattle Int’l Raceway (now Pacific Raceways) back in the track’s nitro-racing heyday of the 1970s.

So with the Seattle event not that far off I figured I'd better publish another one. Here’s Part 2, a couple of vignettes about the people who helped make the place special, and some great old shots.

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Seattle
64 Funny Cars!: It's 6 p.m. Friday night the day before 64 Funny Cars. Already in line to get in tomorrow, and it isn't even dark yet. The ticket booths are about half to three-quarter-mile from the highway, six lanes wide. 

SeattleWe are in the first 100 cars at the booths. Beer was flowing, parties are already started, it is Friday after all. About 10 p.m. cars approach the ticket booths and they open the gates. Didn't know it at the time but traffic had backed up all the way onto the highway and the State Patrol finally got them to open the gates. 

Pulled in with my friend's dad's 1953 GMC dump truck with plywood sides for a dump bed, two kegs of beer, and backed into position just short of the finish line. Set up two layers of construction scaffolding in the dump bed, grabbed my sleeping bag and camped out under the grandstands. No way to get sleep anywhere on the property, the party had started early! Finally said to heck with it after a guy in a single-engine Beechcraft did a high-speed, low-level flyby of the track around 3 a.m. 

Practice started at 10 a.m., Funny Cars all day, last race about 1a.m. Because we were on the far side of the track from the entrance, it would take two to three hours to get to the highway. A footnote: We had to leave early evening Saturday to pick up another keg. Luckily I never had to go.

Seattle

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Seattle
Thanks, Russ: In 1974 my brother's wife's brother, Russell Stevenson, called me and asked me to send a photo of myself to him. Why? Can't tell ya. A week later a letter arrived from Seattle International Raceway. Ripped that thing open and inside was a Gold Card with my name and photo on it, free admission to all events. When I showed up for the first event I tracked Russell down to thank him, he says “No problem and here, keep this and stay away from Doner.” What he gave me was a Photo Press Pass to International Raceway Parks. Still have the pass. Russell did everything at the track including holding up a 3-foot-by-3-foot hunk of plywood at the Tree early in the evening of 64 Funny Cars so the drivers could see the Christmas Tree  lights. The track runs to the west so you race into the setting sun. No ear plugs, no safety glasses. Seen cars do bad things to Christmas Trees, but he was never injured. He was getting a little worn out from holding that hunk of plywood up and I caught him taking a break as “Jungle Jim” backs up. Best shot I ever got of J.J. He was always in the far lane and all the drivers he raced would do their burnouts first so I never got a clear image of "Jungle Jim."

Seattle
One thing we had going for us in the Northwest was we had 13 Top Fuel or Funny Cars based in the Seattle area. The other was Bill Doner. He knew how to pack them in. Estimates ranged from 15,000-20,000 people would be at 64 Funny Cars. In 1974 alone there were 14 nitro race dates between the end of April to the beginning of September. It was like “the Snake” and “Mongoose” lived here. How could they be racing in California, according to the magazines, when they were always Here? It was the best of times.

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Gordie Bonin
240 Gordie’: I finally met “240 Gordie” Bonin in 2000 at Spokane Raceway Park. He had just won the FIA European Top Fuel World Championships in 1999. I was working at the racetrack doing all those things that needed to be done, like kicking rocks off the starting line, and sweeping the oil dry from the tailgate of a pickup truck. A couple years later Gordie move to Deer Park, just north of Spokane. We invited him to car-guy breakfast on Saturday mornings and he would hold court with his tales. Showed up at my house one day with a friend on his Kawasaki 900 that he had won at the Gatornationals in ‘79. I can't remember which. Story telling was part of Gordie. Too bad I can't tell most of them here, to protect the innocent and the guilty. There was one story that impressed me the most, and it goes like this:

Gordie Bonin
One of my last photos of Gordie. It was in the tower at the divisional race at Spokane County Raceway 2013. Left to right, Roland Leong, NHRA Division 6 announcer Stevie Wong, “240,” and Spokane County Raceway announcer O.J. Stephens.

“We were running at Mission Raceway in B.C. and had a new body on the car. It was dark and we were racing Jerry ‘The King’ Ruth. At the top end, the engine let go in a huge fireball. I grabbed the ‘chutes, shut off the fuel, killed the mag, but the flames were just getting bigger. When I finally got it stopped, I could not get out the window. It was getting real warm when I looked up and saw ‘The King’ had lifted the body up and I was able to escape. He looked like God standing there beckoning me to get outta there. A lot of people disliked Jerry Ruth for whatever reasons, but from that day forward I never had a single bad thing to say about him. He had saved my ass and anyone who crossed ‘The King’ while I was around, I would set them straight.”

We became good friends and it was a chilling day when the news of his passing arrived. I still have an original Firebird autographed t-shirt in my collection.
Gordie Bonin

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Seattle
Ed “the Ace” McCulloch. Still have that 1/16 scale model. Model building was a passion at the time and it sure brought attention to the sport. Always a favorite. Always ran hard. Another legend from the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle
Gary Beck was from Seattle but was recognized as Canadian in the begging of his career. Why dispute it when it worked to attract attention to your operations? Always looked for his cars, and almost got an explosion while standing on top of a shack at the finish line. One-shot wonder camera, waited, got the shot. No explosion.
Seattle
There were a few cars that were magnets to the fans and the Blue Max and Raymond Beadle drew them in. It was always hard to see what was going on in their pit for the size of the crowd gathered around. When the Internet arrived I met quite a few people interested in drag racing. One person in particular, Howard Hagen, showed some interest in my online images. We would talk online and actually met face to face one weekend for an event in Pomona. Howard is a drag racing artist and I was deeply humbled when he asked if he could use my photo of the Blue Max for one of his projects. Here are the image I took and the one Howard created. You should check out his work at his Ebay store.
Seattle
“Wild Bill” Shrewsberry was famous for his wheelstanders but this nighttime fire burnout left all of us gasping. Luckily no one was hurt and the car survived, too.
Seattle
At the NHRA Fallnationals in 1976, Mike Miller in his Boredom Zero Mustang did his burnout for qualifying, backed up, shifted, and the pin fell out of one of the pedals. Mark Dentler goes in the driver-side window while Ed “The Ace” McCulloch dived in on the passenger window with Al Swindahl stepping into the photo. Got it fixed, made the run. Mike also had a great run driving Jim Green's Green Elephant.
Don Prudhomme
I went into my camera store and one of the clerks says, “Would you like to take my Nikon?” Didn't take long to figure that one out. Took the Nikon and his 200mm lens. Decided to sneak out to the guard rail and see if I could get away with it, remembering security has increased greatly. I was about 200 feet past the finish line trying to hide behind a post. Only took these two images. When “the Snake” came by me it felt like the vacuum behind the car was going to suck me onto the track. It would be many years before I got my hands on another Nikon.
Bill Jenkins
I took a lot of Pro Stock photos but I have to limit my story somewhere. Bill Jenkins first appearance at Seattle International Raceway was a big deal. They were giving away some Bill Jenkins T-shirts to the first however many. You took your ticket to the stand and they paper punched it. Didn't take us long to figure out that the red dots could be reused to get another shirt. Worked ... for a while.
Wayne Gapp
Wayne Gapp and the four-door Pro Stock that took names and numbers.
Seattle
Lee Hunter: Psychedelic paint schemes. You had to love them.
Seattle
Jerry “The King” Ruth. Just the name stroked fear in his competitors. First Top Fuel pass I ever saw was 1965 and it was Jerry Ruth. Controversies aside, it cannot be denied that he dominated both Top Fuel and Funny Cars in NHRA Division 6, winning multiple championships in both cars at the same time. There was no in-between with the fans: You either hated “the King” or you loved him.

Man, some great photos there. Thanks again to Herman for sharing them and his wonderful memories. I'll have Part 3 in a few weeks as the Seattle event approaches.

Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]